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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is a realistic reboot designed to make you feel uncomfortable

Reboots on the ground

The annual Call of Duty franchise has reached its reboot stage. This year’s entry, titled plainly Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, will reimagine the 15-year-old franchise, according to developer Infinity Ward.

That back-to-basics branding signals an approach other studios have taken to softly reboot their games this generation — think 2018’s God of War, 2016’s Doom, and 2013’s Tomb Raider. After developing the triaged Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and coolly received and under-appreciated Infinite Warfare, Infinity Ward says it wants to make a Modern Warfare that’s relevant and current.

That means a “morally gray world” where modern is meant quite literally: One mission Infinity Ward showcased during a recent studio visit takes place in London this October, the month this new Call of Duty: Modern Warfare launches.

“By the time Modern Warfare 3 was over, nukes had gone off, the U.S. had been invaded by Russians, and there were no more relatable stakes,” said Taylor Kurosaki, studio narrative director at Infinity Ward. “So we put that storyline to bed, and instead reimagined those characters so they could work in the conflicts of today.

“The world we live in is more complex than the one 10 years ago. Enemies often do not wear uniforms ... as a result, civilian collateral damage is a bigger part of the equation.”

Kurosaki likened the Modern Warfare reimagining to Casino Royale, the 2006 film that relaunched the James Bond franchise with a more grounded tone. He referenced modern military films like Lone Survivor, American Sniper, Hurt Locker, and Sicario, which he said “are not about black and white” characters, but about people “navigating a tough world,” as influences on his new game.

Jacob Minkoff, campaign gameplay director on the new Modern Warfare, made reference to another source of inspiration: Infinity Ward’s own Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and its AC-130 mission. In that section of the game, players view the conflict disconnected from above in sterile black and white, raining fire down on faceless enemies. The view from the AC-130 in that game looks nearly identical to real-world footage of such airstrikes.

“I felt genuinely and profoundly uncomfortable in that moment,” Minkoff said. And he wants the new Modern Warfare to deliver the same caliber of “relevant, relatable and provocative moments.”

Based on two missions from the game that we saw, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare will have no shortage of provocation.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare - lone soldier walking down a rainy street at sunset Infinity Ward/Activision

The first gameplay from Modern Warfare shows the conflict from the perspective of the British SAS. In London, outside Piccadilly Square, a car bomb explodes in a busy city street. The military tracks a suspect to a nearby location, and they stealthily approach an apartment building via a back alley approach. In cover of darkness, SAS soldiers enter the building wearing night vision goggles. It looks like the climactic scene of Zero Dark Thirty, a near-silent assault on an ordinary, rundown flat. They approach the kitchen and gun down two male suspects, then a woman. They creep upstairs and enter a room. A man takes a woman hostage. They shoot him. The hostage grabs the rifle that was just pointed at her and she is instantly shot by the SAS. A suspect takes cover behind a wall. The SAS shoot through drywall. He dies. They clear more floors. A baby is crying in a crib. Another suspect hides underneath a bed, the barrel of his gun visible to the SAS. They spray the mattress with bullets, and he dies too. Another floor. A woman, unarmed, makes a sudden movement. She’s killed. She was “going for a bloody detonator,” an officer says.

The SAS never asks a question. They make no arrests. These are shocking bursts of violence. It’s quick, oddly quiet, and, yes, genuinely and profoundly uncomfortable. It’s not often you see first-person shooters have players kill what look like everyday civilians.

The next segment we’re shown presents gameplay from a very different perspective. It’s set 20 years prior to the events of October, somewhere in the Middle East, and opens underneath rubble. A young girl awakens to the site of a corpse: her mother, killed by a Russian bombing raid and trapped underneath the crumbled rock and rebar. The girl is rescued, and reunited with her father. They head home, sneaking through city streets to avoid the Russian soldiers who are slaughtering their friends and neighbors. Father and daughter make it home, where the son safely awaits them. As they pack to leave, a Russian scout finds them. He shoots the father, but the children sneak away to find hiding spots. A game of cat and mouse ensues, as the Russian taunts the kids, hoping to root them out. The daughter, who is playable, grabs a screwdriver and stabs the Russian. Once, twice, and a third time, eventually snatching his gun away. She pulls the trigger on his Kalashnikov, wildly spraying a hail of bullets. The Russian dies. The girl, hands shaking, drops the rifle.

The horrors don’t stop there, as son and daughter run for safety, witnessing the ongoing decimation of their village. Men, women, and children are gassed and summarily executed. The scene ends when the girl finds a pistol, encounters another patrolman, and fires on him. It’s plainly evident that we’ll see how that decades-old scene results in a modern conflict from that same girl’s perspective as an adult freedom fighter.

Infinity Ward/Activision

She’ll represent one half of Modern Warfare’s campaign. While the game will bring back Tier 1 operators, including SAS operatives Captain John Price and John “Soap” McTavish, both reimagined for Modern Warfare, we’ll also see how war affects rebels and freedom fighters from their first-person perspective.

“We were very strongly influenced by stories of normal people trying to live their lives in the context of war,” said Michal Drobot, principal rendering engineer at Infinity Ward.

To make the conflict feel realistic, Infinity Ward is updating its technology to make Modern Warfare look and sound like its real-world influences. The studio invested in photogrammetry technology, scanning in physical objects (humans, cars, a Russian T-72 tank) to make the game look more realistic than ever before. Modern Warfare will employ a “new purpose-built engine” that includes features like ray-traced shadows, reflections, and audio; spectral rendering for night vision and thermal goggles; dynamic global illumination and reflections; and volumetric lighting.

Shown on a PlayStation 4 Pro at Infinity Ward’s in-house theater, it’s easily the most visually impressive Call of Duty game to date.

That pursuit of realism extends to the game’s guns, the primary means of interaction in Call of Duty games. Motion blur effects on guns and muzzle flare, reloading while aiming down sights, and all-new audio tech will “illustrate how powerful these weapons feel,” according to animation director Mark Grigsby.

Infinity Ward/Activision

“This is a military sim,” Infinity Ward studio co-head David Stohl said. His team is going for “authentic and gritty, not superhero caricature” for the new Modern Warfare. And while modern military shooters are inherently extremely violent, Infinity Ward is aiming for “intense and mature over gratuitous body count and gore.”

“This is the most authentic and realistic game we have ever made,” Minkoff said. “All we want to do as storytellers is make players feel something.”

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which is coming to PlayStation 4, Windows PC via Battle.net, and Xbox One with cross-platform play, will be released on Oct. 25.

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